Three modes of movement thinking

Mode 1: Advocates for different issues don’t perceive their issues as connected and interdependent. Attention and resources are finite, and allocation is a zero-sum game. Fights about “root causes” and “whose issue is more important” are frequent.

Mode 2: Advocates recognize that their issues are connected in complex ways. Victories are celebrated across sectors, and folks are able to rally around issues that are “not theirs” at least in symbolic ways. However, identity is still primarily defined by issues, and there is tremendous pressure to make all major campaigns fully reflect the interests of all issue segments. Tremendous energy is spent making sure that language and framing is inclusive of all segments/interests in the larger movement, while finding common ground with opponents is shunned as betrayal of the larger movement.

Mode 3: Advocates recognize that issues are complex and interdependent, but that each victory builds the power necessary to enact a long-term agenda, even if each campaign does not fully address all of the issue interests of every segment of the broader movement. Organizations are able to devote significant resources to issues that are “not theirs” knowing that those resources will eventually be repaid with interest — both directly in future campaigns and indirectly via increased movement power before the next campaign even begins.

Conservatives often operate in mode 3. Progressives tend to operate mainly in mode 2 at best — and in mode 1 more often than we’d care to admit.

It’s also interesting to think about donor motivation. Most progressive donors give because they care deeply about one or more issues. Right-wing donors give because they seek power first and foremost. Moreover, if their policies are adopted ,right-wing donors often make more money than they contribute. Progressive donors often pay twice: once to activist groups and then again in higher taxes after their preferred policy wins.

“Engagement Organizing” is live!

I’m pleased to announce the release of “Engagement Organizing,” a short whitepaper about the culture and technology of building power for social change in a networked era.  I had the great pleasure of collaborating with my dear friend Matt Price, and I’m really pleased with the final results.  If you are working to make progressive change in the world, please give it a read and share your thoughts with us at

Authenticity and social change

This didn’t make it into the paper on Engagement Organizing that we’re about to release, but I thought it was an important point on its own.  Curious to hear your thoughts.

One thing is common to all of the engagement organizations we interviewed: authenticity. These are organizations that are so comfortable with their identity and able to explicitly connect their work of the moment to deeply-held core values that their supporters feel it and respond to it with higher levels of engagement than in other organizations. In a world where people are less trusting all the time, authenticity is a critical foundation of social change.

An Advocacy Dilemma

I’m working on a fairly big chunk of writing about advocacy campaigns, organizing and strategy.  (More on that very soon!)  In the meantime, one idea that popped out along the way that didn’t really fit into the main thrust of the piece was the observation that, for many organizations, there’s a deep tension between building an army of passionate followers and being credible with the not-already-converted.  One manifestation of this tension, with which we’re all probably familiar, is the organization that is extremely fired up but decisionmakers don’t take them seriously.  More common, though, is the organization that is well positioned to be credible, but extremely weak.  The creative challenge, I think, is to be both passionate and credible.

Collective Impact

I’ve been reading and thinking a bit about “collective impact” lately.  (Here’s the seminal article introducing the buzzword.)  It’s a solid, mostly-common-sense framework for thinking about collaborative/coalition efforts.  There are five elements that define a “collective impact” approach:

  • Common agenda.  If you don’t have a shared vision for change, you can’t really expect to collaborate effectively.
  • Mutually reinforcing activities.  Successful collaborators need to coordinate their activities, play to their strengths, and know their role in the larger effort.
  • Continuous communication.  If you don’t communicate regularly you can’t hope to build enough trust and shared language to collaborate effectively.

At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Jon, why are you wasting my time with such obvious folderol?”  Most coalition efforts I’ve seen fulfill these first three conditions pretty well.  Hang in there, it’s the next two that are the most interesting:

  • Shared measurement systems. Hmm, now we’re getting somewhere.  Collective impact suggests that collaborative efforts need agree on a shared set of indicators of success and the systems for monitoring and reporting on those indicators.  Without shared indicators, collaborators have no way to really know if they are succeeding or failing, and no feedback systems that allow them to “course correct” as needed. 
  • A backbone support organization.  Proponents of collective impact assert that successful collaboration efforts need to have a strong, staffed organization at their center, in order to run the collaborative process with sufficient intensity and focus to drive it forward in the face of distractions.  It’s not clear to me whether they think a strong “lead coalition partner” fulfills this condition or not.  (I suspect not.)

It’s these last two points where most collaborations falter, and probably not concidental that they require sustained, long-term resource commitments.  How do collaborations you’re involved with stack up?

Three keys to understanding Occupy Wall Street

I don’t have much original to say about Occupy Wall Street, other than that I find it quite fascinating on many levels.  Here are three articles from cutting-edge progressive social change organizers that I think offer important, non-obvious insights into what is really going on and what it could become.

  1. from liberty plaza, Adrienne Maree Brown
  2. Turning Occupation into Lasting Change, Tom Linzey and Jeff Reifman
  3. Occupy Wall Street is Not a Brand, Marty Kearns

Very different perspectives, but some amazing thematic resonance: opportunity, radically democratic process, networks instead of organizations, diversity (of people and ideas).  Will these seeds blossom or wither and wait for the next season of discontent?

A few thoughts on social change movement HR strategy

Social change work is hard, long term work.

Like most hard work, it takes a lot of practice to get really good at it.  Malcolm Gladwell in “Outliers” claims that it takes about 10,000 hours (10 years) of practice to really master something.  I don’t see why social change organizing/campaigning should really be any different.

People who have the skills to be outstanding social change activists have lots of choices and opportunities in their professional life–they have the leadership, analysis and “getting things done” skills to be valuable in many fields.

So, given these realities, are social change movements structuring themselves to attract highly skilled potential superstars and to retain them for the 10 years it takes to attain mastery… and beyond, into the most highly productive years that follow?

In my anecdotal experience, not so much.  To me, the sector looks like its strategy is more “burn and churn.”  Get ’em in while they’re young, pay ’em as little as possible, and work ’em hard for 3-5 years until they burn out.  Minimal investment in tactical skills, strategic thinking or leadership skills.  The survivors become the next generation of leaders.

In a world where it’s organized people vs. organized money, why aren’t we doing a better job of investing in our people?

Update: Some great discussion on this post over at Google+.

What is effective environmental organizing?

We’ve been talking a bit internally at Groundwire here about how to define effective social change organizing.  Here’s what we have so far:

Effective social change organizing creates relationships in order to build measurable power and wields that power to achieve specific, significant behavioral, policy or political outcomes.

How does that work for you?

We like that it is succinct and clearly connects relationships, power and tangible outcomes.  But it also raises questions of what we might mean by “measurable power” and “specific, significant outcomes.”

Any organizing campaign or organizer will need to figure out what measures of power are most meaningful for their context, but in general, we think that power is most often measurable in terms of “I can motivate X people to take action Y, which results in Z.”

“Specific and significant” outcomes will also vary greatly across campaigns, but again, we want to emphasize how important it is to be able to articulate these outcomes in specific and measurable terms.  Some examples could include:

  • Winning an election
  • Passing legislation or administrative policies
  • Measure shifts in public opinion or behavior

If your “big hairy audacious” goal will take years to achieve, that’s OK, but you need to be able to define some specific shorter-term outcomes to let you know whether you’re on track.




Paul Loeb on Greg Mortensen and the fetishization of “innovation”

Paul Loeb has just published a nice, thoughtful piece about the Greg Mortensen affair.  I particularly liked the following couple of ‘grafs, because they remind us that our fascination with Mortensen is part of a larger, unhealthy dynamic in which we fetishize “innovation” and “heroes” while ignoring systems approaches and long-term experience.

The arc of Mortenson’s fame also reminds me how much our culture enshrines lone entrepreneurs as the ultimate change agents, while displaying a commensurate disdain for those who’ve long worked in the trenches. We see this in international development, where businesspeople or celebrities receive massive publicity for their glamorous new projects, while groups like Oxfam or CARE that work year after year in local communities are left invisible in the shadows, or presented as dull, bureaucratic, and retrograde in comparison.  We see the same thing with America’s educational debates, where those who talk glibly of solving poverty and inequality with the instant solutions of high stakes testing, charter schools, or eliminating the long-held rights of teachers receive massive attention, while the experiences of those who’ve actually spent 20 or 30 years in the classrooms are disdained and ignored.

Sometimes fresh approaches can shake things up, and Mortenson’s focus on getting Pakistani and Afghan girls enrolled in school may well be one of those transformative ideas. But his books still feed the narrative that the best way to make change is to ignore pretty much anything that anyone else has been doing all along, and to charge ahead with your own Lone Ranger initiatives.

On Buildings, Balance and Advocacy Campaigns

My wife Molly works for a big-time international multidisciplinary buildings engineering firm.  Over the dinner table, I’ve learned a bit about how big buildings get designed and built.  Another frequent topic of dinner conversation in my house is the myriad challenges of designing and running truly effective environmental advocacy campaigns.   The other day, I had one of those “aha!” moments.

Buildings are really complicated.  They can’t be designed and built by just one person, or by a team of people with only one set of skills.  For example, on Molly’s current project, there’s a mechanical engineering team (they figure out the heating and air conditioning), an electrical engineering team (the do the lighting and electricity), and a structural engineering team (they make sure the building doesn’t fall down).  And that’s just the engineers!  There are also multiple teams on the construction side, the data center designers, and more.  Playing the role of designer & project manager are of course the architects.

Each of these disciplines sees the world very differently.  Each of them have different expertise, and each brings important knowledge and skills to the project.  Failure to incorporate any of these disciplines’ perspective would almost certainly lead to a failed project — a building that is too hot or too cold, doesn’t have reliable power, falls down, is ugly, doesn’t have the functions the owner needs, or goes wildly over cost.

As you might expect, these different teams often have wants and needs that conflict with the other teams.  The most beautiful building design might be impossible to cost-effectively heat or cool.  Electrical and mechanical teams can tussle over limited space in the service spaces.   Structural wants bigger, heavier beams while the project owner wants to keep cost down.

All of these differences of opinion have to be worked out, typically through ongoing “coordination” meetings.  In the best cases, potential conflicts are identified early in the process, before too much time and energy has been spent.  But since building design is always an iterative process, coordination is a continuous process, and as the building design evolves, it can become more and more stressful and high-stakes.

Let’s talk about advocacy campaigns.  As you may be starting to suspect, I think there are some parallels.  Advocacy campaigns are often big, complex, multi-year endeavors.  They have a clear goal, but the process can be very messy and filled with unexpected twists and turns.  Successful advocacy campaigns will involve people with many different forms of expertise: strategists, lobbyists, field organizers, communications, technology, policy experts, attorneys, fundraisers.  Each of these disciplines sees the world very differently, and advocates for different values.

So far, lots of parallels to that big building project, right?  But when I look around at the leadership circle of most of the advocacy campaigns I’ve been familiar with over the years, I don’t see that diversity of disciplines represented.  Mainly I tend to see lobbyists and/or policy experts.  Strategy, field organizing, communications, technology, or development are rarely represented at the leadership table, and if they are, they’re typically represented by junior staff who are lack status and power with respect to more senior lobbyists/policy experts.

Over time, this results in unbalanced campaigns, where critical expertise from all of the relevant disciplines is dominated by one or two limited perspectives.  Such campaigns may experience short-run success, but they quickly run into the limitations of their narrow leadership perspective.

Worse, I see a disturbing pattern wherein certain of these disciplines (e.g. communications, field organizing) are long-term under-resourced, which results in these disciplines never developing senior staff-level expertise, which makes it all the harder for these disciplines to credibly represent themselves and be taken seriously at the leadership table.   This further deepens the vicious cycle of unbalancing.

Have you been a part of an “unbalanced” campaign?  What was it like?  How do we create more balanced campaigns?

9 changes towards transformation

I’ve been thinking a bunch about the challenges of making cultural transformation in the organizations I work with here at Groundwire.  It’s a tough challenge.  The first step, it seems, is about naming the changes we want to help folks make.

Here are some rough notes that popped out as I was gathering my thoughts for a meeting.  I’d love to know what thoughts they provoke for you.

From –> To

    1. Broadcast –> Dialogue
    2. Formal –> Conversational
    3. Organizational voice –> Personal voice
    4. Goals –> Values
    5. Centralized communications –> Distributed through many channels
    6. Intuitive decisions –> Data driven decisions
    7. Master planned –> Continual refinement toward clear big picture goals
    8. Set the agenda –> Respond to what’s hot that fits your goals & values
    9. Always the center of collaborations –> Partner more, and more informally

      Alternative Gift Registry

      Center for a New American Dream has a nicely done “Alternative Gift Registry” tool (currently the #4 Google result for “gift registry”!) that allows you to create gift registries that de-emphasize consumerism (used goods, donations to charity, experiences rather than stuff, etc.).   This is a great example of a nonprofit advocacy group coming up with a valuable public-facing service that is grounded in its mission and expertise to bring people into the circle of engagement.

      Transformation, not technology

      It occurred to me yesterday that the real challenge we[1] face is not the question of “how do we apply technology tools to organizations?” but more “how do we help organizations & people transform themselves so that they are more able to harness the power of technology?”

      [1] “we” = those of us standing astride the worlds of technology and social change.

      Stories of Now

      From Marshall Ganz’s lectures on organizing:

      Stories of “now” articulate a challenge we face now, the choice we are called upon to make, and the meaning of “making the right choice”, in particular the hope that may be there. Stories of “now” are really stories set in the past, present and future. The challenge is now; we are called upon to act now because of who we have become, a legacy of the past; and the action that we take can shape a desired future. These are stories in which we are the protagonists. We face a crisis, a challenge. It’s our choice to make. And, if it is a story of hope, there’s hope if we make the right choice. It’s not a sure thing, but there’s hope… and it’s the right thing to do.

      The story teller among us whom we have authorized to “narrativize” this moment finds a way to articulate the crisis as a choice, reminds us of our moral resources (our stories, stories of our family, our community, our culture, our faith), and offers a hopeful vision we can share as we take our first steps on the journey.

      Listening is not enough. Responding matters too.

      Stumbled across an interesting, resonant paragraph from Vinnie Mirchandani that worked best for me out of context:

      My concern with Social CRM is we will build better antennae and pick up even more… signals. But unless we have passionate (and empowered) employees who can follow up and do something about it, we will gradually turn off our advocates. And go back to traditional CRM – hope our marketing and PR dollars drown out the non-advocates.

      Speaking and listening are both essential parts of a conversation.  The trick is the balance.

      Obama starts a grassroots lobbying group via DNC

      It will be very, very interesting to see how Obama’s new “Organizing For America” effort, run through the DNC, plays out.

      The new group, called Organizing for America, will be a “special project” of the Democratic National Committee,
      according to Obama transition spokesman Ben LaBolt, and it appears to
      be the primary vehicle for issue advocacy for Obama’s agenda. It will
      also be the keeper of Obama’s e-mail list, which has 13 million

      The DNC has not exactly been a hotbed of authentic grassroots organizing, but perhaps Obama can transform it.

      In addition, I wonder whether this new effort will push independent progressive groups like MoveOn to the sidelines or starve them for resources/attention.

      “Chaotic, cacophonous, well meaning efforts that will inevitably add up to nothing”

      Allison Fine throws some common sense on the fire in assessing post-election “crowdsourcing change” efforts.  I’m going to shamelessly quote it at length because the message is worth amplifying and repeating.

      Oh, the sacrilege of criticizing well meaning crowd sourcing!!
      Shouldn’t citizens be allowed, nay encouraged!, to throw do-goody ideas
      against the wall so that we can then all vote on them and then . . .
      and then . .. well, somebody should do something, right? These
      well-meaning, misguided efforts have fallen into two categories:

      1. The Confusion of Service Category. The discussion of using a
      Craigslist approach to scaling up service, as my friend Nancy Scola outlines
      rightly points out is not very helpful if it’s just more of the same.
      The notions of increasing voluntary, community service as the solution
      to government not working right needs to end. I have written about this
      morphing of public and private service before, most recently here
      and the basic premise of my argument still holds. Americans have
      increasingly been volunteering (particularly young people who are
      required to do so in school and are continuing to do so beyond school),
      the number of nonprofits has exploded in the past twenty years and yet
      problems abound. That is because the size of government far overshadows
      the size of volunteer efforts in terms of resources. Peter Levine
      compared philanthropic dollars to government dollars for Katrina repair
      and you will see the difference, $6.5 billion in private philanthropic
      dollars, nothing to sneeze at, but compared to $120.5 billion in
      government aid. So, more volunteer databases are not what we need to
      strengthen the civic infrastructure of the country and overhaul our

      2. The second category are the idea generating sites that are
      automatically set up as an “us vs. them” paradigm to help the Obama
      administration “set priorities”. Ah, yes, we are going to tell you what
      we think you should do — as if we haven’t just had that conversation
      over an exhausting marathon of an election — and then we’re going to
      hold your feet to the fire by stomping our feet and holding our breath
      until you do. Or just as bad, we, the Obama campaign, are going to
      “listen” to you as you fill out a survey (oy!) and then we’ll . . . well, we’ll say that we listened to you.

      What’s the alternative, then?

      This election was about transforming government, not just encouraging
      people to volunteer more. (Oh, and btw, I don’t buy the idea that
      because Obama has a large mailing list its the same as a constituency,
      it’s a mailng list of people who were involved, not a list of people
      who have signed up for the next phase of the journey – big, big
      difference that campaigns and nonprofits need to understand much

      So, here’s my plan of action:

      1. The focus has to be on changing government to include citizen participation. […] The advocacy models of the 1960s were created to protests
      against government; we need a new model of advocacy that helps us to
      participate in government. So, the question changes from, “What do we
      want government to do?” to “How are we going to participate in running
      our government.”

      2. Continue the training. One of the most successful elements of the
      Obama campaign was training local organizers. Now we need to educate
      and train people on what government does. […] We should set a date of say, January 3rd and 4th and use
      to get everyone go to your local library for a seminar on the
      fundamentals of government; local, state and federal. How does it work,
      what does it do, how can we participate?

      3. Start local today. One of the dangers of the “throw an idea up
      against the wall” strategy is that the ideas tend to be too big
      (“alleviate global poverty”) and too hard for individuals to
      participate in tackling […] Let’s make a national to-do list
      for transforming local government, someplace where we really can make a
      huge difference right now, today, if we show up and participate. Steve
      Clift gets us started here.
      Run for office, go to planning board meetings, ask your town supervisor
      to start blogging and post the budget online (and keep it updated in
      real-time!), promote local businesses, revamp the outdated recycling

      Hat tip to Marnie for flagging this.

      Low-transaction-cost organizing

      The always-insightful Mark Schmitt has some interesting thoughts on the significance of internet-enabled low-transaction-cost issue organizing:

      Low transaction-cost organizing will present many challenges to the way
      we think about politics and how to regulate it. Much of the regulation
      of money in politics, for example, is based on limiting organized money
      (PACs, bundling) because some people can organize and others can’t.
      Instead, perhaps, it should seek to encourage greater organizing,
      reduce the transaction costs even further. And, of course, even with
      low transaction costs, real political equality is impossible — and
      perhaps we will even come full circle, where everyone can organize and
      be heard, and then once again the only ones who matter will be the ones
      who bring the really big cash. But for now, it’s all an improvement,
      just as it’s an improvement to be able to find infinitely new ways to
      find status and satisfaction.